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Lapvona – Ottessa Moshfegh

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In Lapvona, the much-anticipated new novel from Ottessa Moshfegh, a disabled shepherd boy living in a medieval fiefdom finds himself an unlikely replacement for the murdered son of a tyrannical lord, but it’s not enough to replace the love he imagines for his mutilated mother (whom he was told died in childbirth).

So, yeah, it’s Moshfegh’s usual lighthearted fare. A rom-com romp guaranteed to put a smile on your face.

Seriously, folks, if you pick up Lapvona just because you enjoyed My Year Of Rest And Relaxation and you recognised Moshfegh’s name, you’re in for a rude shock. This is a guttural story about the most grim and grotesque aspects of human nature.

One review of Lapvona went viral a few weeks ago (in #bookstagram networks, anyway), describing it as “[a] new novel of medieval brutality [that] aims for the Marquis de Sade but ends up closer to Shrek“. That’s a spectacular roast, but it just made me all the more eager to read it (and all the more grateful to Penguin Books Australia for sending through a copy for review).

It’s every bit as horrifying as it sounds (and then some), with moments of insight so searing and quotable it’s like looking into the sun.

Marek guessed that Villiam could use his wealth to influence God’s will. That was the way things worked, Marek thought. If you didn’t have money, you had to be good.

Lapvona (page 53)

A comprehensive trigger warning would be longer than your arm, but of particular note: animal cruelty (there was one specific incident with a dog that made me put the book down and cuddle my own), abuses of power, sadism, self-harm, cannibalism…

Lapvona is masterful and revolting. I’m glad to have read it, and glad that it’s over. I’d imagine that’s exactly what Moshfegh was going for.

(Bonus: I loved this Vulture piece about – among other things – Moshfegh’s apparent obsession with the scatological.)

Buy Lapvona on Booktopia here.

Becky – Sarah May

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Ambitious and determined, Becky Sharp is going to scheme her way into high society. She slips unnoticed through the ranks, weaponising the secrets she uncovers about the movers and shakers, until she gets what she wants. Is it William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, or the latest novel by Sarah May, Becky? Believe it or not, it’s both – but I’m specifically talking about the latter, because Macmillan Australia was kind enough to send me a copy for review.

Becky begins in 1989, when Becky Sharp starts working as a nanny for a family of newspaper moguls. She doesn’t have her sights set on a career in childcare, though – she wants to work at The Mercury. Amelia Sedley is the widely-adored almost-too-nice nanny for the family upstairs, and the two form an unlikely alliance.

Becky, of course, eventually lands her dream job, breaking the biggest stories of the decade at the country’s most notorious tabloid newspaper. She marries up, levels up, and she seems unstoppable. But, as we all know, journalism has a big shake-up coming (a couple of them, actually) and our (anti?)heroine may yet topple from the top.

Becky is like if a British Ottessa Moshfegh told the story of the News Of The World phone-hacking scandal, using Vanity Fair as a template. May touches on everything – gender inequality, colonialism, celebrity culture, corruption in politics, the wealth gap – without overegging the pudding. She offers incredible moments of blazing insight (“There are no female toilets on the executive floor,” page 149), and a rollicking story to boot – far more fun to read than the 19th century version.

Buy Becky on Booktopia here. (affiliate link)

A Lonely Girl Is A Dangerous Thing – Jessie Tu

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Child prodigies are cute, but have you ever wondered what happens to them when they grow up?

The story of one such prodigy unfolds in A Lonely Girl Is A Dangerous Thing, the debut novel of Australian writer Jessie Tu. It’s not a stretch to imagine that at least some aspects of this story are autobiographical, as Tu herself trained for fifteen years as a classical violinist. Still, I hope from her sake that her story isn’t too close to that of her central character… The fine folks at Allen and Unwin were kind enough to send me a copy for review.

Jena’s career as a violinist came to a screeching halt as a teenager, after a public humiliation that “blew up the lives” of her, her family, and her teacher. She has retreated from the spotlight, playing as part of an orchestra, and uses self-destructive sex to fill the void (heads up: it’s not one for the prudish, Jena is… unabashed).

A Lonely Girl Is A Dangerous Thing interrogates female desire, relationships, and power – it’s Ottessa Moshfegh meets Lisa Taddeo.

10 Books With Unnamed Narrators

If you’re not great with names, getting to the end of a book and realising that you don’t remember the narrator’s name might not be a big deal. But for the rest of us, it can be unsettling to realise you don’t know the most basic fact about the character you’ve spent 300+ pages with. Writers have many reasons for leaving their narrators unnamed, some of them good and some of them silly. Here are ten books with unnamed narrators.

10 Books With Unnamed Narrators - Book List - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

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Rebecca is one of the classic books with unnamed narrators. People who haven’t read it usually – quite reasonably – assume that the titular character is the main one, the one telling the story, but du Maurier has a surprise in store. The narrator is, in fact, the woman who marries Rebecca’s widower. She moves into Rebecca’s house, becomes mistress of Rebecca’s staff, and despite her best efforts, can’t escape the looming specter of Rebecca everywhere she turns. The fact that du Maurier never tells us her name has been interpreted many ways, but most readers accept that it symbolises the narrator’s submission both in the narrative and in the broader social context of women’s limited roles. Read my full review of Rebecca here.

My Year Of Rest And Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh

My Year Of Rest And Relaxation - Ottessa Moshfegh - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The narrator of My Year Of Rest And Relaxation is one of the most repellent yet fascinating characters in all of contemporary fiction. The fact that she’s an unnamed narrator is almost beside the point. This young woman is, by her own admission, laughably privileged, incredibly hot, and unbelievably self-absorbed. She decides to use her wealth and security to live the clinomaniac dream of sleeping for an entire year. She hoodwinks an eccentric psychiatrist into prescribing massive doses of sleeping pills, and takes to her bed. Ottessa Moshfegh is the master of crafting compelling characters who are simultaneously revolting, and this unnamed narrator is one of her finest.

I’m Thinking Of Ending Things by Iain Reid

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It won’t take you long to realise that something’s hinky in I’m Thinking Of Ending Things, and the fact that the narrator doesn’t have a name is your first clue. She’s in a car with her boyfriend (who is named, why?), driving to his parent’s place to meet them for the first time, and all the while she’s thinking about ending things. When they reach the farmhouse, things just get weirder. I’m not ashamed to admit that this book terrified the pants off me, and I read it all in one night to avoid having nightmares by putting it down and going to bed half-way through. So, if you like unnamed narrators and nightmare fuel, this is the book for you! Read my full review of I’m Thinking Of Ending Things here.

Milkman by Anna Burns

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The narrator of Anna Burns’s Booker Prize-winning novel, Milkman, is technically unnamed… but also kind of not? She’s also not special, in the narrative world Burns has created. The city in which she lives isn’t named (even though it’s pretty obviously Belfast), and neither are her family members, her “maybe-boyfriend”, nor her stalker. She refers to herself as “maybe-girlfriend” and “middle sister”, so she has monikers of sorts, but as far as Official “Real” Names go? Nada! This is a heavy-handed but effective allusion to the culture of silence that surrounded the Troubles. Read my full review of Milkman here.

The Sellout by Paul Beatty

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What is it with Booker Prize winners and unnamed narrators? Here’s another one: The Sellout. It’s a “biting satire” about a young man at the heart of a race trial that goes all the way to the Supreme Court… but it’s not what you think. After his controversial sociologist father dies, leaving not a penny and no trace of his promised “memoir” that would solve the family’s financial woes, our “hero” takes the questionable path of seeking to reinstate slavery and segregation in his small Californian town. This audacious novel will have your jaw dropping and your sides splitting, from start to finish.

Apex Hides The Hurt by Colson Whitehead

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What would you expect from a “comic tour de force about identity, history, and the adhesive bandage industry”? Pretty much everything you get in Apex Hides The Hurt, one of Colson Whitehead’s lesser-known but no-less-wonderful novels. It gets the gong for the best use of irony when it comes to unnamed narrators, because in this case, the anonymous protagonist is a nomenclature consultant. That’s right, you’ve got an unnamed narrator who is an expert on names – how funny is that? This is a fun read with a twist, perfect to power through on a quiet weekend.

The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa

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The Memory Police is a Kafkaesque novel that clearly owes a huge debt to Nineteen Eighty-Four. The unnamed narrator in this one is a novelist, living on an unnamed island which is under the control of the titular authoritarian force. Through an unexplained and seemingly random mechanism, everyone who lives on the island is forced to “forget” objects or concepts. Uniformed enforcement officers patrol the island, making sure the “forgotten” items are truly gone and anyone who gives the appearance of remembering them is disappeared. I suppose unnamed narrators are par for the course when anything could lose its name at any time? Read my full review of The Memory Police here.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

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One of the most iconic unnamed narrators of the fifty years is undoubtedly Offred, the pseudonymous protagonist of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Well, if you’re a purist, anyway. If you read the original text as a standalone, the woman drafted into reproducing for infertile couples under the Gilead regime is forced to shed her name, so the reader never learns it – she is called “Offred”, as in “of” the man who “owns” her. If you’ve read or watched any of the accompanying stories – the sequel The Testaments, or the HBO adaptation – you’ll know that Offred’s true name (well, more than one of them, actually) was revealed. But the fact remains that stripping her of her name was an important symbol in Atwood’s feminist dystopia. Read my full review of The Handmaid’s Tale here.

Pizza Girl by Jean Kyoung Frazier

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Okay, technically – technically – the titular character in Pizza Girl does, eventually, get a name. But she’s unnamed for so much of the novel, I’ve decided she belongs in the hall of unnamed narrators. Besides, her name is mentioned so briefly, skimmers would totally miss it. The eighteen-year-old pizza delivery driver is a lost soul, desperate to drum up some kind of excitement about her pregnancy (the way everyone else in her life seems to) and determined not to grieve the loss of her alcoholic father. Being such a searing insight into depression and loss of direction, it just makes sense that she would be nameless. Read my full review of Pizza Girl here.

If Cats Disappeared From The World by Genki Kawamura

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In If Cats Disappeared From The World, the cat has the cutest name ever: Cabbage! It’s almost cute enough to make you overlook the fact that the narrator remains unnamed. He has a fascinating story to tell, though. The young postman learns that he has only months to live, and shortly thereafter, the devil shows up to offer him a deal. Our unnamed narrator will be offered an extra day of life, as long as he chooses one thing to disappear from the world forever. “With each object that disappears, the postman reflects on the life he’s lived, his joys and regrets, and the people he’s loved and lost,” (as per the blurb).

Best Books of 2022

Can you believe we made it through another year? Thankfully, 2022 went down a little smoother than the years prior. As always, I’m amazed – looking back – at how many brilliant books I had the opportunity to read this year. Check out the best books of 2022 (back-list AND new release).

Best Books of 2022 - Book List - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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Legitimate Sexpectations by Katrina Marson

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I considered myself fairly open-minded and well-informed about sex education prior to reading Legitimate Sexpectations – even though I received little more than the standard “how to use a pad” and “how the sperm penetrates the egg” at school, as far as I can recall. And yet, Marson opened my eyes, again and again, as to how the system as it stands is failing kids (and adults). Most importantly, she doesn’t just identify the problems; Marson outlines potential solutions. I want to thrust Legitimate Sexpectations into the hands of every politician, parent, and school principal. It’s one of the best nonfiction books of 2022, one that has the power to affect real change. Read my full review of Legitimate Sexpectations here.

56 Days by Catherine Ryan Howard

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Is it too soon for a COVID-19 murder mystery? Catherine Ryan Howard surely hopes not. 56 Days is her latest high-concept crime thriller, set in Dublin in the early days of the city’s first lock-down. It’s a well written, well paced, with tantalising clues and a couple of truly excellent fake-out twists. The couple at the heart of the story barely know each other when they’re forced into the pressure cooker pandemic situation, so the reader gets two (or more?) very different perspectives on the same events. I thoroughly enjoyed 56 Days – so my verdict is that it’s not too soon for a COVID-19 novel, as long as it’s a good one. Read my full review of 56 Days here.

Here Be Leviathans by Chris Flynn

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I loved, loved, loved Chris Flynn’s last book, Mammoth – it was one of the best books I read in 2020. So, when I saw he had a new book coming out, I sat up straight and said “yes, please!” in my polite voice. Here Be Leviathans is a collection of nine short stories, narrated by animals, places, objects, and even the (very) odd human. A grizzly bear on the run, a plane seat in a terrifying crash, a genetically modified platypus with the power of speech – each and every one, bizarre and brilliant. Flynn really pushes the boundaries of what we can expect from perspective and it takes a special, rare writing talent to pull it off. Read my full review of Here Be Leviathans here.

Rogues by Patrick Radden Keefe

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If you loved Say Nothing and Empire Of Pain (like I did), you’ll be overjoyed (as I was) to get your hands on a copy of Rogues, a collection of Patrick Radden Keefe’s most celebrated articles from The New Yorker and one of the best books of 2022. These delightfully detailed investigative pieces focus on his favourite subjects: “crime and corruption, secrets and lies, the permeable membrane separating licit and illicit worlds, the bonds of family, the power of denial”. Honestly, I could talk about each and every one of these stories for hours. They’re all masterfully crafted, perfectly balanced, and totally gripping. Read my full review of Rogues here.

The Importance Of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde

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The farcical premise and witty dialogue have made The Importance Of Being Earnest Wilde’s most enduringly popular play. I can attest to the fact that it’s a lot more fun than The Picture Of Dorian Gray, to boot. Wilde’s wit and insight shines at full strength throughout, and he gently pokes at the social mores and conventions of the time while still maintaining a timeless quality. It’s still beloved by critics, readers, and theatre-goers alike, and I’m happy to join them in singing its praises. It’s a quick read, remarkably clever, and delightfully ridiculous. Read my full review of The Importance Of Being Earnest here.

A Tale For The Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

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Very few blurbs have grabbed me like that of Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale For The Time Being. It’s a brilliant premise: a writer finds a diary, locked inside a Hello Kitty lunchbox, washed up on the beach in remote coastal Canada. She suspects it to be debris from the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami. She reads the diary, and finds herself increasingly obsessed with the life and inner world of 16-year-old Nao, the diary’s keeper. I mean… isn’t that fascinating?! I was very pleased to discover that the contents of Ozeki’s novel – one of the best books I read in 2022 – totally lived up to the high, high expectations that blurb set. Read my full review of A Tale For The Time Being here.

Weather Girl by Rachel Lynn Solomon

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I inhaled Weather Girl in one sitting. The plot is just the right level of ridiculous for a rom-com, the characters are well-developed and well-intentioned, and it has plenty of snort-laughs to offer. Best of all, though, were the steamy and – this is key – realistic sex scenes! Honestly, I wanted to high-five Solomon through the page. For once, rom-com characters experience the actual awkwardness and anxiety of intimacy with someone new, without it ruining the vibe. I gave this one five stars for that alone, one of the best books of 2022 for sure. Read my full review of Weather Girl here.

Sadvertising by Ennis Ćehić

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Every so often, a short story collection comes along that changes the game completely. In 2017, it was Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body And Other Parties. I’m pretty confident that Ennis Ćehić’s Sadvertising is next. It’s a collection of short, sharp stories about modern life, technology, and marketing, and one of the best books of 2022. The stories are drenched in black humour, existential dread, and late-capitalist yearning. Some of them are seriously short – as in, 1-2 pages – so they’re quick to read, but deeply resonant. It struck me as I read through the collection that it would be an especially great read for fans of Black Mirror and the Gruen Transfer. Read my full review of Sadvertising here.

Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

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Alias Grace is a fascinating and compelling work of historical fiction, one that tells us just as much about Canadian society and gender roles and the field of psychiatry at the time as it does the crimes of Grace Marks. I also loved the sneaky Gothic elements, which felt very true to form for a story of this nature. This book both satisfied my Murderino curiosity and met high literary standards – no mean feat, as it would have been easy to make this story schlocky and scandalous. Atwood has expressed some troubling views of late, but damn if this wasn’t one of the best books I read in 2022. Read my full review of Alias Grace here.

Booth by Karen Joy Fowler

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Karen Joy Fowler wrote one of my favourite and most-often-recommended books, so I did an excited “squeeee!” when I saw she had a new one coming out. Booth is superbly readable. The pages flow by even when nothing particularly thrilling is happening. Fowler paints intimate portraits of each family member, and the narration includes deft wink-nods to the reader and the future. I was most impressed by the way Fowler kept the day-to-day family drama in the foreground – it struck me as very realistic. My hat goes off to her once again – she’s written an incredible, timely, and provocative novel, one of the best books of 2022. Read my full review of Booth here.

The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

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Of all the great books I read this year, The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks was the first one that came to mind when I sat down to write my list of the best books of 2022. To call it a ‘biography’ feels reductive, as it’s so much more than dates and the facts of a life. It’s a masterpiece of journalistic non-fiction, written by a first-time writer no less. It’s a study of bioethics, a masterclass in accessible science writing, and a testament to the human consequences of scientific discovery. And it’s compelling as heck, to boot! Read my full review of The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks here.

Horrorstor by Grady Hendrix

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Setting aside any regards for its contents, Horrorstor is one of the best books of 2022 for design, alone. Look at it! It’s formatted to look like an IKEA catalogue, complete with an order form for a copyright page and product descriptions for chapter headers. It’s honestly one of the most beautiful tomes I’ve ever had the privilege of placing on my shelves. The concept is brilliant, too: haunted IKEA. Doesn’t that just send shivers down your spine? But it’s not all schlocky spooks and jump-scares. This story has hidden depths. Hendrix mines the mind-fuck of consumerism and late-stage capitalism to fuel your nightmares. Read my full review of Horrorstor here.

The Strangers by Katherena Vermette

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Despite the (very) heavy subject matter and Vermette’s talent for stark realism, The Strangers is surprisingly readable. The pages fly by! It really exceeded my expectations, and I’m still mulling over it, months later. It’s “a searing exploration of race, class, inherited trauma, and matrilineal bonds that – despite everything – refuse to be broken”. Katherena Vermette is a Red River Métis (Michif) writer, from the heart of Métis nation (Canada), and her heritage permeates this incredible First Nations novel – one of the best books of 2022. Read my full review of The Strangers here.

Calypso by David Sedaris

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David Sedaris is a must-read auto-buy author for me now, but I’m forcing myself to take it slow. I make myself read only one book of his at a time, instead of gobbling them all down at once. I started with Me Talk Pretty One Day, then last year Dress Your Family In Corduroy And Denim, and now in 2022 Calypso – a collection of autobiographical essays that (once again) was one of my best reads of the year. Even though the content of this one is a bit darker in parts, he still writes with the humour and panache that makes him unique. It’s impossible not to be impressed by his mastery of the form, the way in which he can punch in any direction and still manage to remain thoroughly likeable and hilarious. Read my full review of Calypso here.

Odd Hours by Ania Bas

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There’s been no shortage of quirky protagonists in recent years, but Gosia in Odd Hours is a different breed. She’s like the Polish love-child of an Ottessa Moshfegh character and a Fredrik Backman character, with a little of a Gail Honeyman character thrown in. The dark, wry humour keeps the story entertaining, rather than wearisome, but it’s far from a light-hearted rom-com. It lives up to the blurb’s promise of “a razor-sharp social comedy about human connection”. The plot builds to an unconventionally happy ending that will delight odd ducks everywhere. Read my full review of Odd Hours here.

Life Ceremony by Sayaka Murata

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As with Convenience Store Woman and Earthlings before, Life Ceremony was translated into English from the original Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori – and, once again, she’s done a fantastic job. It’s a collection of “weird, out of this world” short stories that mix “taboo-breaking horror with feminist revenge fables”. Exactly as you’d expect from Murata if you’ve read her work before, it’s full of the joyfully strange aspects of human nature and surreal conceits that will blow your mind. The stories vary in length and complexity, but they’re all fascinating in equal measure. Read my full review of Life Ceremony here.

The Cry by Helen Fitzgerald

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I was truly blown away by the TV series The Cry when I caught it by chance on the ABC a few years ago. I didn’t actually realise it was adapted from a book until I came across a copy! Even though the ending was ‘spoiled’ for me, I was still keen to read it – and it was still completely gripping. The Cry is a dark, psychological thriller with a gripping moral dilemma, perfect for anyone who enjoys a story about good people doing bad things. And if, like me, you’ve already seen the show, trust me when I say that it’s still worth a read – it’s one of the best books I read in 2022! Read my full review of The Cry here.

Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver

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One of my most recent reads is also one of the best books of 2022 (in my humble opinion). Demon Copperhead is surely destined to become a contemporary classic, an essential component of the burgeoning canon of books about the generation of lost boys in 21st century America. Kingsolver crafts a compelling adaptation of Charles Dickens’s classic novel, David Copperfield, transporting the story – complete with abusive parents, neglect, poverty, disease, and loss – to the Southern Appalachian mountains of Virginia. Even Kingsolver’s Uriah Heep character is every bit as creepy as the original, if you can believe it! Read my full review of Demon Copperhead here.

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